By akarni@politico.com (Annie Karni)

President Donald Trump has turned his daily intelligence briefing — a routine that in previous administrations has been a dry, formal affair — into a free-flowing conversation during which he peppers his CIA director, former House member Mike Pompeo, with questions about everything from national security threats to the internal dynamics of Congress.

After their 10 a.m. sessions, which Pompeo conducts in person about four mornings a week, Trump often asks Pompeo to accompany him to his next meeting — whatever it is.

The CIA director’s favored status in the West Wing has made him the odds-on choice to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, according to more than half a dozen administration officials and outside advisers familiar with the White House’s current plans. It’s not clear when Tillerson might leave — he has vigorously denied rumors that he plans to resign anytime soon — but Pompeo has told associates that he expects the president to tap him for the position and that he’d accept the job if it’s offered to him.

Trump’s relationship with Pompeo mirrors the close bond he developed with John Kelly while the retired Marine general was serving as secretary of Homeland Security — and promoted Kelly to chief of staff within six months, replacing former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus.

“Like President Trump, Director Pompeo is clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the threats we face, and he speaks in the direct, blunt manner of a man who has no time to waste when confronting those threats,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served alongside Pompeo in the House.

A White House spokesman said Trump has no personnel announcements to make and that the president’s relationship with Tillerson remains strong. “The president is very pleased with his entire national security team, which includes Secretary Tillerson and Director Pompeo,” said Raj Shah, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary. “Together, they have led the world toward unprecedented pressure on North Korea, are crushing ISIS in Iraq and Syria and have convinced NATO members to contribute more to the common defense.”

Pompeo is an amalgam of the qualities the president prizes most among his subordinates, from sterling academic credentials to military valor and business success. A graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School, Pompeo went on to found an aerospace and private security company before running for Congress in 2010. As a staunch conservative and a foreign policy hawk, he is also a closer ideological match with Trump than the former ExxonMobil chief executive, an establishment Republican who has routinely clashed with the White House.

“Trump likes guys who finished first at West Point; that’s a Trump kind of guy,” said a friend of Pompeo’s. “He also likes people who have had considerable business and wealth-creating success.”

Pompeo has established himself as a Cabinet member willing to perform uncomfortable cleanup duty for the president, defending Trump at some of the lowest points of his presidency. He made the Sunday show rounds to defend the president’s response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, even as other administration officials went silent. Last week, he took a meeting at Trump’s request with Willian Binney, a conspiracy theorist who has denied any Russian interference in the 2016 election, which appeared to lend credence to a theory that has been discredited by the CIA and every other American intelligence agency.

Pompeo has, however, publicly broken with the president over the question of Russian interference in the election, making clear that the CIA’s view differs from that of the president himself, who has steadfastly refused to say explicitly that he believes in Russian malfeasance. When Trump on Saturday said that he believed Vladimir Putin was sincere when he denied any meddling, the CIA reiterated that the agency stood by its assessment that the Kremlin was behind email hacks and social media campaigns designed to benefit Trump.

Yet, whereas Tillerson has consistently worked to counter the president’s hawkish instincts, pushing to open talks with North Korea and opposing the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, Pompeo’s views are more in tune with the president’s views on foreign policy.

“Pompeo is a skeptic toward the traditional thinking in Washington about Iran and North Korea,” said Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Tillerson pushed back on policy things and at times he reflected that there’s always a diplomatic solution. Pompeo will think outside the box. He’s also willing to not attack Trump openly, which most of this administration seems willing to do.”

While Trump initially viewed Tillerson as a peer in the Cabinet — another plain-spoken millionaire who had achieved considerable business success — the relationship was quickly strained, with his status as the nation’s top diplomat challenged by presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Trump publicly vetoed his first-choice deputy, Elliott Abrams, just weeks into the new administration.

Since then, the two have clashed on issues ranging from trade and immigration to the decertification of the Iran deal. Few believe anymore that he speaks for the president — a privilege required for a secretary of state to conduct diplomacy. In a remarkable news conference last month, Tillerson publicly swatted down rumors of his imminent resignation after NBC News reported that he had privately called the president a “moron.”

His refusal to explicitly refute that charge, however, sent the president, who at the time was aboard Air Force One en route to Las Vegas to console survivors of a mass shooting, into a rage, according to White House officials who traveled with him.

Pompeo has told associates that he is in no rush to leave the CIA and would happily serve there for eight years — but that, if asked to take another position in the administration, he prefers one where he would grapple with some serious challenges.

“This has never been a topic discussed during the secretary’s regular breakfast meetings with the director,” said State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond. “I do know they discuss the national security challenges facing the United States and …read more

Read more here: How Mike Pompeo became the favorite to succeed Rex

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